Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
Of all the books of the Bible, Solomon’s Song of Songs is surely the one that seems least appropriate. Just eight chapters, 117 verses, it certainly raises one’s pulse. I blush when reading it – the sexual innuendo and sensuality is palpable! The opening lines illustrate: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – for your love is more delightful than wine. … Take me away with you – let us hurry! Let the king bring me to his chambers” (1:1 & 3). Gracious! How odd that such a text should be included in a book that centres on religion and spirituality, the higher things of life.
At this point, you might want to go and read Song of Songs. You’ll find it in your Old Testament, just before Isaiah, a couple of books after Psalms.
There are several approaches to interpreting Song of Songs, and scholars are often not in agreement on which of these are correct. There does, though, seem to be a general agreement that this is indeed a love poem about sexual love between a woman and man; and that this human love reminds us of the intimate love between us and God.
To be sure, this poem is full of evocative and sensual imagery, drawn from the life world of the ancient Hebrews:
- Nature. Hills, mountains, gardens, fountains, wells, wind, dew, dawn, moon, sun, stars, pools, fire, flames, rivers.
- Plants and food. Wine, vineyards, blossoms, cedars, firs, lilies, roses, apple trees, fruit, pomegranates, honey, honeycomb, milk, wheat, palms, clusters of fruit, grapes.
- Spices and perfume. Perfume, spices, myrrh, incense, henna, nard, saffron, calamus, cinnamon, aloes.
- Animals. Sheep, goats, mares, doves, gazelles, does, foxes, stags, fawns, lions, leopards, ravens.
- Jewels. Jewels, earrings, necklaces, gold, silver, purple, scarlet ribbons, chrysolite, ivory, sapphires, marble.
- Artefacts. Tents, chariots, banquet halls, crowns, towers, shields, doors, latch-openings, troops with banners, goblets.
At the literal level, the importance of Song of Songs is its celebration of sexual love between two people. Its presence in the Bible tells us that intimate love, even ecstatic love, is good and Godly. This is important, because Christianity has often given the impression that it is anti-sex.
This started a few hundred years after Christ, when the early church began to move towards the requirement for celibacy among clergy, a pattern still practised by the Roman Catholic Church. This value expanded also to the general public, with a growing belief that sex was sinful and inevitably led one deeper into sin and away from God. Sex was not appropriate for pleasure, but only for procreation, and even then, not too much of it. Marriage also was acceptable only as a solution for those whose faith was too weak to ensure celibacy. Sex was a threat to faith, not a facilitator of faith. All of this gave sex a bad name among Christians.
While we have probably largely abandoned these ways of thinking, sex remains a bit of a taboo subject in the Church. And many of us have lingering feelings of being dirty in relation to sex. The parental voice – “Don’t touch that!” – is scripted in our brains. And we seldom preach on sex and we don’t discuss it much at church. Think of this, when last did you hear a sermon preached from Song of Songs? And if you have heard one, did it spiritualise the Song or did it talk about sexual relations?
But, when we reflect on the scripture as a whole, we will realise that human sexuality is celebrated throughout the Bible. Genesis 1 and 2 present God explicitly mandating and blessing sexual relations between Adam and Eve, with the hope that they will be fruitful and multiply. Proverbs 5:15-20 and Ecclesiastes 9:9 both celebrate sex – not as a means of procreation, but as a pleasurable relational activity in its own right. Marriage was, indeed, the norm in the Old Testament, with all priests being required to be married. This affirmation of marriage and sex continues in the New Testament, perhaps most vividly shown in Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel – the wedding at Cana.
If you believe that canon – the selection of which texts to include in the bible – is inspired by Holy Spirit as much as the individual texts are, then the fact Song of Songs is in our Bible is important! It tells us, among other things, that sex and faith can, do and even should co-exist comfortably, side by side. There is nothing illicit about human love. Loving and being loved is not something we have to do with our eyes closed; or hoping that God has his eyes closed. It is blessed and celebrated and Godly!
But I think there are two other important lessons that we should take from Song of Songs. The first of these is that Song of Songs suggests a parallel between intimate human relationships and our relationship with God. I don’t mean by this that Song of Songs is really a poem about our spiritual relationship with God – that is a form of allegorising that has largely been abandoned over the past hundred or so years. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that one of the reasons why Song of Songs was deemed fit to be included in the Bible is because those who assembled the Old Testament canon recognised that in various ways it mirrors and illuminates our relationship with God.
There is, in our relationship with God, something of a marriage, something of a love affair. The kind of intimacy and losing-of-oneself that we can experience in human love is something like the way we can be intimate with God. We can lose ourselves in God. We can experience a similar kind of union (like, “the two shall become one flesh”) with God. The opening chapters of Hosea, where Hosea writes about his love for his unfaithful wife, are commonly understood to be about God’s love for unfaithful Israel. God says to Hosea, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, thought they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1). John the Baptist likens his relationship with Jesus as a bride with her groom (John 3:29-30). Revelation 19:6-10 speaks about a great wedding celebration that is yet to come, when God wraps up earthly history and inaugurates a new and wonderful age. Christ, the Lamb, is the groom, and we will be his bride.
So, Song of Songs points us towards a level of intimacy in our relationship with God that in various ways is mirrored in our intimate human relationships. Of course, extrapolating from human love to divine love has its problems. Many of us have experienced corrupted human love in the form of abuse and exploitation; and many others of us have experienced inadequate love in the form of tepid and unsatisfying intimacy. But when we imagine the best of human love, as it is depicted in Song of Songs, how can we not think of the perfectly intimate love that we can experience with God?
The second important less that we can take from Song of Songs is this. If you believe that all scripture is God-breathed, then we must accept that Song of Songs is God-breathed. And that means that God’s mind and heart are in some way reflected in the text of Song of Songs. In other words, we gain some insight into the heart of God by reading this poem. And that insight is that love is deeply engrained in the heart of God.
I think we probably all would assent to the idea that God is love. But sometimes we think of this ‘love’ in rather clean, neat, sanitised terms. It’s kind of a handshake love, or a polite hug love. A little bit formal and reserved. Or, we might take it closer in parent-child terms: the kind of hug you’d give your son or daughter – warm and close, but asexual, with definite boundaries.
But Song of Songs suggests that when God thinks of us, it is not the handshake kind of love, nor the polite hug kind; not even the intense parental kind of love. Song of Songs suggests that when God thinks of us – and I know I’m pushing the boundaries here, but don’t stop reading! – it is intense, sensual, passionate, even erotic. I admit that even for me writing this, the idea of God being ‘in love’ with me is hard to get my head around. But since God created sexual love, God must be able to imagine sexual love; and sexual love may well be closer to what God feels for us than parental love. The fact that there is a book in the Bible on sexual love, but not on parental love, is significant, and probably says something important about how God loves us.
If this has gone too far for you, then let us back off it a bit.
What we can take out of Song of Songs, is that God’s love for us is extremely deep and intense, not simply like parental love, but in some way like sexual love. There is a strength and passion to God’s love for us that holds onto us tightly, that is fierce and possessive, that cherishes and celebrates, that desires to be close and exclusive, that delights and laughs, that tangos and twirls. I don’t know about you, but I find myself wanting to respond to a God who loves me like that.
Meditation for the Day
Today’s reflection may have pushed your envelope. Try not to reject them too quickly. Play with these ideas and see where they take you. You may discover a fresh experience of God’s love for you.
Prayer for the Day
God, my lover, I thank you that your love for me is intense and passionate. Let me know that I am your beloved. Kindle in me a similar love for you.